CINCINNATI — In this day and age of speed in NFL offenses, it’s a luxury to have a true three-down linebacker who can be trusted to handle pass and run defensive assignments equally well.
The Bengals have two.
In Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, the Bengals have two players who have proven indispensable in their ability to patrol the middle of the field and tackle and make game-changing plays.
Pratt was drafted in the third round of the 2019 draft out of North Carolina State. Wilson was chosen a year later in the third round out of Wyoming.
Pratt’s forced fumble on Travis Kelce last week was as big a game-changing play as the Bengals have had all season.
Former NC State linebacker Germaine Pratt made arguably the play of the game for the Bengals today. Chiefs driving to go up two scores, he makes a hell of a play to strip the ball from Kelce. Bengals scored the game-winning TD on the next drive #PackPros pic.twitter.com/4VJwm8fhqa
— Andrew Schnittker (@aschnitt53) December 5, 2022
Not surprisingly, they are the top two tackle leaders on the defense, with Pratt’s 78 leading the way in 12 games. Logan Wilson, with 74, would likely be at the top of the leaderboard if he hadn’t missed the game against Atlanta with an injured shoulder.
In addition to his forced fumble, Pratt has an interception, one sack and four passes defended. Pratt’s interception of Derek Carr in January was an iconic moment that sealed the playoff win over the Raiders and set the Bengals on the path toward Super Bowl LVI.
Wilson has one interception and three passes defended. If there’s a fourth down stop to be made at the point of attack, Wilson is almost always counted on to be that guy for the Bengals defense.
Logan Wilson takes the RB high to drive him back with his Wyoming country strength on 3rd and 1.
BJ Hill destroys his block as well. pic.twitter.com/hWHJyEWIhM
— Mike (@bengals_sans) October 3, 2022
This is not to say Akeem Davis-Gaither, Markus Bailey, Clay Johnston and Joe Bachie don’t serve important roles as backups, especially Davis-Gaither with his speed on the edge and his ability to spell one of the two, but Pratt and Wilson are the unquestioned leaders of the middle of the field for the Bengals defense.
They are the reason Lou Anarumo can play the secondary in its base nickel packages aggressively, knowing the middle of the field will be covered. While Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson can drop in coverage, having two linebackers like Wilson and Pratt behind the defensive line, allows the edge to be set properly in the run game.
“I think they’ve got a really good relationship,” head coach Zac Taylor told me. “They play off of each other. They’ve played together for what feels like a really long time now, three years. I think they’re just a good combination of two guys that get along. They see the game really similarly. They’re both really bright, and so that communication is pretty quick between them, which is cool. I’d say their personalities are different, which is like two receivers together, like two running backs being together. They’re just different personalities and they get along great and they’re side-by-side a lot.
“You can see the verbal and non-verbal,” Taylor added. “At home (games), you see some pretty quick (reads) and they’re on the same page real quick and real fast. I can see some of their real fast feedback that they give each other, that gets them set up and it takes time to have that chemistry.
“Last week, there were a couple of instances that stood out more than I can recall in quite a while.”
Indeed, Pratt and Wilson have been a huge reason the Bengals have been able to contain Patrick Mahomes in key moments of their three wins over the Chiefs in the last calendar year. Their ability to run side-to-side and vertical and track targets like Travis Kelce play a key role in containing the Chiefs potent passing attack.
“It’s the connection we have,” Pratt told me. “It’s fun to play with a guy who is so versatile as him. We can do a lot of the same things together, run, hit, sideline-to-sideline, cover. It’s good to feed off that. He makes a play, I can make a play. It builds competition, good competition. If he makes a play, I want to make a play. If I make a play, I know he wants to make a play, so it’s great.”
“He’s got a side of the field, I’ve got a side of the field. I just know he’ll be there and I’ll be where I need to be. It’s just basically trusting and doing your job. He’s sees something. I see something. Like formation recognition. If he sees something that’s possibly coming to my side, he’ll speak up on it. And I help him on the other side, too.”
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) December 8, 2022
“I think it’s just playing alongside each other for the amount of time we have,” Wilson said. “He’s been here now four years. I’ve been here three years. We’ve both grown. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from him and he’s learned a lot from me. We just play off each other and trust that we’re going to be in the right spot to fire off and make plays.”
The guts of the Bengals defense are their two linebackers. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo doesn’t talk a lot about them because they’ve become so reliable. They’re not flashy but they’re clearly indispensable.
“I was Lou’s first draft pick,” Pratt said. “We’ve been through it all, thick and thin, the good and the bad. You’re seeing Coach Lou progress and we’re progressing. He’s a player’s coach. He sees the game well. He calls it well. He puts us in great position. It’s always fun to play with a coach that understands you and likes you. You can tell him something before the game and it’ll help him and he’ll give us a great (play) call and let us execute it.”
The execution will be paramount this week as the defense looks to finally contain Nick Chubb and the Browns run game while balancing that with making sure tight end David Njoku doesn’t break free over the middle of the field. If Pratt and Wilson know anything, they know how to balance the field, defensively and close out on plays. It’s the dirty work that’s not always glamorous but – in a game like Sunday – essential to victory.